by Doug Carpenter


I Certainly Didn’t See That Coming

I’m not even going to bother asking how many of you have ever said that. Because we all have, probably more times than we can count. And frankly, I’m not sure why that should even surprise us anymore. What should surprise us is when things actually do turn out the way we were expecting them to. Tell me though — how often does that happen for you these days?

As comforting [...if unexciting...] as it used to be, cultural predictability has become an increasingly hard-to-come-by commodity. It really doesn’t matter what repeating unit you use to quantify and mark the coming and inevitable going that all things do. Days. Years. TV seasons. Elections. Super Bowls. Smartphone upgrades. Even Meryl Streep Oscar nominations or, at this point, Star Wars sequels, prequels and spinoffs [...assuming we even need a scale that goes that high.]

God knows there’s been a long and steady stream of all of them with no end in sight. Of course, having a system of measurement is only important if you feel that you simply have to count. Like my grandmother used to say, “That’s how they get you, you know.” [Although, for the record, I have no idea who “they” are or what their supposedly-malicious motive for “getting” us could be.]

But “get us” they do — with expectations. Unlike days past when those presumably wiser than we urged us to “expect the unexpected,” today you’re generally better off if you take the expected and unexpect it. Either that, or risk facing what has become perhaps the worst fate that can befall one in the new information age: Looking like you didn’t know something you should have.

You’ll notice that I said “looking like” rather than “not knowing” there. And that’s basically because even with the amazing advances we’re enjoying in the “world of tomorrow” we’re already living in today [...and we wonder why people find modern life so confusing...], we’re still patiently waiting for someone to come up with a cure for ignorance.

Unfortunately, with their expanded 21st century access to virtually limitless information, people seem to expect there to be a lot less of it. [Ignorance, that is. Not information. That we have coming out of our ears.] Compounding the problem is the fact that people have somehow convinced themselves that knowing what’s coming — or at least appearing to — constitutes compelling proof that they’re intelligent, when all it really proves is that they have a compelling need not to appear dumb.

But of all the profound contributions to humanity that I’ve suggested my free-spirited fellow Baby Boomers should get credit for making, I’m pleased to say that fear of looking stupid is not one of them. [We just kept that ball rolling.] I could actually point out that one of the cornerstone values of the non-conformity we clung to so fiercely in our youth was not giving a damn what people thought of us. The mere fact, however, that we obviously wanted people to think that being non-conformists was totally badass cool kind of busts us on that.

The good news is that there’s plenty of chagrin to go around, since every generation has not only been terrified of looking like they didn’t know what was going on or coming next but, in fact, didn’t. It’s only fair, of course, that I acknowledge that the reason I know this is because I’m writing about it now — in what relatively speaking is the future — where thanks to history we all know what turned out to be true and what didn’t.

That doesn’t mean I get off easy. I just get to form a whole new set of expectations about other confusing stuff and be wrong about those. [Don’t laugh. You’re probably not doing much better than I am.] Someone actually suggested that a few sessions with a psychoanalyst might help. But I figure why spend the money when chances are the therapist will just be some other Boomer with no more of a clue than I have about why so much of what happens are things we never see coming.

So instead, I wrote this column about it — one that, by the way, is not only an historical retrospective but a commentary on the crazy new history that, even as I’m writing, is being made so fast that I can barely keep up. [My health plan would never cover enough therapy.] Of the two, though, I admit that I tend to favor the past, for both practical and self-serving reasons.

To begin with, there’s a lot of “past” that needs remembering [...which we really should try to do while we still can.] That probably counts as a good thing, one we can even take pleasure in doing — assuming you’re able to overlook how rapidly the amount of it you’ve actually witnessed personally increases by the day.

The other benefit flows directly into your credibility, since when you talk to people who are so young that they wonder if the things that you’re telling them happened actually did happen, it’s nice to be able to get someone else who was there to back you up. At least while they’re still around. [Tick, tock, tick, tock.]

When it comes to exchanging expectations between generations, a little skepticism is to be, well, expected. My dubious reaction to my Father’s stories of how comparatively little he paid for everything from suits to steak dinners to Studebakers when he was a young man wasn’t all that much different from the “Seriously, Dad?” I got from my daughter when I told her how much a gallon of gasoline went for back when I was learning to drive. [It was in an Impala, by the way, not a Studebaker. I’m old, but not that old.]

Times change, but in many intrinsically-human ways, people don’t. We always look ahead. But what we see — or what we’re able to see — is often shaped by the state of the world from which we’re attempting to focus on the future. If it’s true that we “learn what we live,” it follows that we’d expect more of what we’ve already experienced.

A child born into a world at war, with all the sacrifice and suffering it inflicted upon them daily, will understandably wonder if that world — or even they — will survive. Similarly, those who survived the bare cupboards and thread-worn trouser legs of the Depression can be forgiven for being a little unforgiving of the mindless wastefulness they see being practiced by people who never had to go without.

Now flash forward from a time so tumultuous and uncertain that you really couldn’t have blamed a child for responding to the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” with the sincere but unguarded answer, “Alive.” Feel free to pick almost any subsequent era, and my guess is that wherever you land, you’ll find parents who never imagined that their kids would end up doing what they ended up doing for a living.

Even as we long for the past while trying to live purposefully in the present [...some of us more successfully than others...], we dream of and dread the future in often-equal measures. But we know that that’s where we’re going to spend the rest of our lives [...assuming we’re lucky.]

So we make modest plans — first for ourselves as we’re growing up and later for our children as we raise them. And what we envision for them is in many ways an expression of our hopes, not just for them but for the world in which they’ll live and work. But doing what?

We have emerged from the time when the world’s once-abundant cultural continuity would’ve fulfilled farmers’ expectations that their children would work the land just as they did; that factory workers’ kids would get a union card of their own; and that the scions of politicians and celebrities would ride their parents’ wealth and name recognition to equally phony-baloney careers in the public spotlight. [Then again, some things are more resistant to change than others.]

Just like the short supply status of continuity, the certainty that things will turn out as we hope they will also grows scarcer as the number of possible directions the world may choose to surprise us by going proliferates. My generation’s parents generally didn’t tell us that we could be “anything you want to be” nearly as often as we’ve said it to our kids, who I have no doubt are empowering theirs every bit as validatingly.

But I don’t think it’s just because that’s the direction the psychology of parenting has taken. It’s just as much a reflection of the reality that we can’t be more specific because the possible paths those kids’ lives may take have become that much more diverse and divergent.

If you’d asked the Baby Boom generation’s parents what their kids would grow up to be, chances are their answers probably wouldn’t have included Computer Software Developer, Genetic Counselor or Professor of Women’s Studies. Those careers just weren’t on anyone’s Occupational Outlook radar.

The same observation would likely be true of many Generation X Moms and Dads — some of whose Millennial offspring, it appears, will be making a fairly comfortable living at jobs with titles like Off-shore Wind Farm Engineer, Professional Video Game Tester and YouTuber. [Yes. That’s really a “thing.”]

In fact, the fact that it’s a “thing” actually makes this next “thing” more — dare I say it — understandable, if not less disturbing. Because according to a variety of studies, today’s preteen youth — in some surveys as many as three out of four of them — consider “famous” and “rich” to be real professions that they legitimately expect to take up someday.

I’d like to tell them that they shouldn’t expect to get something for nothing and that they should expect more of themselves than that, because we certainly do. But they probably wouldn’t pay any more attention to that advice than we would’ve if someone had given it to us.

And I suppose that’s to be expected.

© 2017 Doug Carpenter

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